Thursday, May 14, 2009
A More Excellent Way
I used to think that I was an expert at love. I don't mean in a Kama Sutra sense, but in the sense that I took "love" to mean "suffering for love." It's a shame that, at a time when the tears I shed for those I loved were so very abundant, I did not know that I could have offered them to God for the assuagement of the sufferings of others. And I blamed my tears not only on my own great willingness to suffer, but also on a concomitant unwillingness to suffer on the parts of the callow young men whom I loved. The dynamic reminds me of a bit of comedy routine I chanced upon once on television: the comic noted that his father was Jewish and his mother was Italian, explaining, "He taught her about guilt, and she taught him about sorrow." This sort of dynamic, whether I understood it or not, was my aim in love.
But at this point in my life, I see that I'm barely on the first rung of the ladder of love. What does it mean to love? Not much of anything that's portrayed in the culture as coming under that rubric. Not much of anything consistently fun or happy-making. Love is such hard, hard work, even when it's directed toward those we're terribly fond of, which must be why Christ had to order his disciples to love one another, and why he said that the second greatest commandment was to love one's neighbor as oneself. It is rare indeed, however, to find a professed Christian, or anyone else for that matter, acting on these orders.
Which is why I see it as an act of grace that my friend Otepoti directed me toward Sister Mary Martha's blog. In browsing the archives, I found this post, which I felt was the answer to something that has been troubling me since I moved out of New York City and into Appalachia last fall -- that is, my ongoing struggles with love.
When you live in a big place, it's easy to find people who are, or who seem to be, exactly like you, and it's therefore relatively easy to form close friendships that lighten the burden of your existential loneliness. In New York, there was even someone just like me (or so I imagined) living in the apartment just below.
But in my new town in Appalachia, not so much. As I haven't gotten my driver's license yet, I continue to walk around town with my toddler in his stroller, which is a practice (apart from me) embraced only by indigent, often obese, often teenaged mothers of many children obviously, as evidenced by the children's differing skin colors, fathered by more than one man. On my walks, I encounter these mothers buying cases of Enfamil with WIC vouchers in the grocery line, or sitting on the sidewalk with their children, or yelling at their children and their feckless-looking, sparsely-toothed male friends at the playground. Sometimes they have greasy hair and many tattoos.
Well, back in New York, if you had many tattoos, as long as they weren't on your neck or face, you weren't scary; on the contrary, you were a nice, self-conscious hipster. And if you were in an interracial relationship, you were most likely highly educated, often highly paid, and/or working in a creative field, since de facto segregation is, with few exceptions, the way of all neighborhoods in New York, and there hasn't been a white underclass there for nearly a hundred years.
I never met anyone who was openly racist or anti-Semitic until I was an adult. My mother told me which neighborhood children's parents had signed a petition asking a moving family not to sell their home to a black family; I didn't play with those children. So it had never occurred to me how prejudiced I actually was. I did catch glimpses of my own intolerance occasionally, usually on the subway: in the South Bronx, when I was pregnant, I witnessed two mothers get into a fight in front of their children before a cop stepped in, and was horrified; another time, also in the Bronx, when I was coming home from my teaching job and reading a dissertation source in Italian, and was annoyed by the loud revelry of a drunken Puerto Rican man sitting across from me, I decided that the people with whom I rode the train did not share my values.
It's easy to assume, though, that those of your own group do share them. But here, I've come to see that my "group" is not defined by my race or ethnicity. And I'm saddened by the repulsion and fear I reflexively feel towards those who seem not to be like me in ways that are vaguely menacing. Sadly, I have much in common with Sister Mary Martha's interlocutor, who says of people much like my fellow citizens:
. . . a life-style built around fatherlessness (or child-abandonment from either parents), drunkenness, drug use, unrelenting foul language from the cradle to grave, avoiding a job and sleeping with your half-sister, well, that's sin. And if we're to really be charitable to those who commit such atrocities, it just might be saving some people if you give them a clue that their behavior is white-trash-like and is damaging to their souls.
Sister provides the remedy:
I'm sure there are reasons Jesus so loved sinners. Maybe He identifies with people you so need to call white trash. His earthly father didn't sleep with His mother at all. Clearly a case of neglect or some sexual dysfunction. Jesus never had a job and just lived off of other people who put Him up in their houses and fed Him AND all his friends. He actually told His friends to STOP WORKING and hang out with Him. His final words to them was a commandment to never even try to earn money and have any money or nice clothes or even shoes. Lazy slobs. No wonder they were all killed.
Jesus loved sinners. Remember? We never have to condone sin to love a sinner. God does it every single minute. It makes me extremely sad to think that we can not let go of calling people some kind of name and that we insist it is just fine and dandy to do so.
Can you imagine if Father stood in the pulpit said "white trash" and meant it? Why is it not okay for Father to say that, but okay for you?
Maybe it's time to bring back the ruler.
So now I offer all those shed tears in retrospect with the prayer that God will soften my hard heart and give me humility and true love for my neighbor.